Any message sent or received, any decision made, any simple step you take … relies, ultimately, on a trust relationship. Without trust, we would become immobilised. So as the general level of trust in traditional institutions in many western countries has diminished, the Risk-Monger asks: What is it that allows us to not be immobilised and incapable of acting: In what and in whom do we trust?
This is the first part of a series looking at the evolutions in trust. The next blog will look at how citizen science is being put forward by some as a type of blockchain research alternative to the present regulatory risk assessment process.
As a communications professor dipping my toe into risk management, I would like to consider myself as a student and interested observer in the science of trust. In the early days of the field of risk communications (the late 1990s), I held to the belief that science, well-communicated would allow for clear rational policy. Like so many back then, I trusted science and the capacity of experts to manage hazard exposures to a low, reasonable level. In 2000, I spent four years with a great team setting up one of the first science communications experiments: GreenFacts.
I am acutely aware that all decisions, all communications, all stories we tell, all activities we do are founded on trust relationships. How we act is defined by whom and what we trust. Little has been written in this field, so I published my notes for my students to have a source (one of the original reasons I had set up this blog). Elsewhere on this blogsite, you can find qualifications of trust drivers, elements like predictability, familiarity, authenticity, kinship, agency, narrative, perception of quality – all elements that serve as the foundations for our ability to enter into trust relationships.
I no longer talk about experts or authorities with whom I entrust to make decisions on my behalf. The phrase “consult your doctor” no longer means “base your decision on such advice since he or she is the expert”. Although a generalisation, an increasing number of individuals in western countries no longer trust authorities or experts. We no longer trust the scientist or the data. When four out of ten people in the land of Pasteur and Marie Curie do not trust the safety of vaccines; when US organic food sales continue to increase rapidly based on a distrust of conventional agriculture; when food manufacturers embrace this scientifically devoid marketing trend … perhaps it is time to look at what it is today that we do trust.
Followers of the Risk-Monger know that I am critical of activist scientists, NGOs and fear-mongering opportunists who have worked to create uncertainty and distrust in our institutions and experts for their own gain. An activist paid by the organic food industry lobby knows that he or she can increase sales in organic food by raising doubts in the innovations and technological developments in agriculture, fully aware that the alternatives they are promoting are unsustainable and will lead to global food insecurity. Raising fear and distrust is easy … and ethically deplorable.
So with trust in our experts, our regulators, our scientists, our doctors declining, still the rule stands: We only take decisions or accept messages from sources we trust. Where is this trust now being placed? This may not be too surprising: large populations of vulnerable individuals are placing their trust in those activists who raised doubts and caused fear in the first place. There was a plan … flawlessly executed … by individuals far more cunning and clever than people like myself had given them credit for. They stole our trust in institutions and sold it back to us in the vulgar form of fear-based donations.
I trust my tribe
With less trust placed in institutions, authorities, experts or science, we increasingly find trust at the micro level: we trust our friends. But in a world driven by social media, we may have never met our friends. As this new communications channel allows us to choose how and from whom we get our information, it gives us far more freedom in selecting what to believe (or rather, confirming what I want to believe). Algorithms have become very efficient at translating our keywords into key values.
When I ask Google a question like “Will glyphosate give me cancer?”, Google is not considering what I should know, but directing me to sources that will tell me what my phrasing indicates I want to hear – the facts the search engine has concluded I will likely choose to accept. Simple but brutal point – Google is not about providing me with knowledge, but rather, satisfaction. If I don’t like the results from my search engine, I’ll use another one! Google makes sure to direct me to sites (and “friends”) who think like me – my tribe.
I go to Google when I feel vulnerable – when there is something I don’t know. I look for something or someone to trust when I feel vulnerable. When the source Google provides gives me reassurance (here is how you can avoid cancer from glyphosate), I enter into a trust relationship with the site, page or group (I join the tribe).
As I engage and acquire more of the tribe’s ‘facts’, I begin to represent it should others have views that threaten this reassuring belief system. We are quick to defend our tribe (keep it pure) by blocking or banning the ‘trolls’ (which should be defined as anyone of deficient reasoning skills to not be able to see the self-evident truth and who must only exist therefore for the purpose of pestering me). I find comfort and reassurance in my tribe – emotions that translate into trust.
What tribe do you belong to?
Are the facts your tribe adhere to open to challenges?
How would you know if you were wrong?
Tribalism is the source of trust in the Age of Stupid. Not that the ideas my tribe adhere to are necessarily stupid, but rather members of a tribe have blocked themselves from other ideas or ways of thinking and subject themselves to bias and dogma. How would I ever know if I am not, perhaps, the stupid one?
Like any religious or cultist activity, tribes often form around a guru – a recognised voice that can articulate the message of the tribe and earn devotion (the bastard sister of trust). Quite often these gurus are cunning opportunists capable of extracting personal benefits from their followers. Within the elitist organic food community, there are satellite tribes built around gurus like Vandana, Vani, Mike, Ronnie, Joseph, Lea… I can indeed pray simultaneously at many of these churches.
I often put my trust in others with whom I can associate. As mentioned earlier, we look for trust, and turn to Google, when we feel vulnerable. Often the gurus are excellent at identifying with these vulnerabilities: “I’m a mother too, and I understand how confused you must be feeling.” A scientist sometimes doesn’t see the need to manipulate such feigned empathy: “This won’t give you cancer, so shut up and learn some basic science!” And we wonder why trust in scientists has been declining… See a TED talk by Onora O’Neill on this subject.
While finding tribes that tell me what I want and need to hear is a very poor substitute for the decline in trust in knowledge, science, the expert and authorities, we nevertheless need to find something or someone we can trust. Tribalism however is subjective, prone to extreme bias and exploitation by opportunistic gurus. How can we find an objective basis for trust – a source upon which to ground my decisions?
New Scientist came out with a cover story last month on evolutions in trust due to technology. It asked a simple question: How is it that while we no longer trust our leaders, authorities, experts and institutions, we will get into a car with a stranger late at night or rent out our sofa bed for a week to people we have never met before? It is possible if everybody is watching everyone and rating everyone. That Uber driver may have a high ranking or the Airbnb reviews for this person might be favourable. Essential to the sharing economy is that I share an honest review of others and submit myself to being reviewed.
This is a new “blockchain” form of trust.
I understand, outside of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, many elements in the sharing economy are not blockchains (there are still the self-interested app designers) but I use this term as a loose handle to show how consensus (and trust) can form around a wide, anonymous collection of observations brought together large populatons. Everyone ranking or assessing everything creates an authority – the evidence of crowd-enabled data – based on ourselves.
For this to happen, there needs to be total transparency not just in the process, but also in the presentation of evidence. (See now how the Risk-Monger and others had so vastly underestimated the cunning and precision of the pro-transparency campaigners!). If a part of the chain attempts to cheat the system, the observational strength of the community would be able to find it. If proprietary data is protected, privacy demanded, or events going undisclosed (as in the case of Uber failing to report several sexual harassment cases in London) the trust in the process would fail. If one sees how transparency activist groups like Corporate Europe Observatory or US Right to Know continue to push for complete transparency, this fits into their ideal of a world governed by the untethered masses (assuming their tribe will be the dictators choosing whom to exclude).
The unfortunate part of this strategy is that transparency is a trojan horse. It is only demanded when trust is absent and does not carry any moral qualities or virtue. A murderer can be transparent. This obsession with transparency guides a world which is morally vacant (disguised as tolerance) and bereft of character.
Building Public Policy along the Blockchain?
What the pro-transparency activists have been campaigning for, on policy measures, is essentially a blockchain risk assessment process. The glyphosate saga, as discussed in a recent blog, was essentially an effort to remove the primary role of evidence and data from the European risk assessment process.
Arguments made by campaign groups like Friends of the Earth or the European Green Party imply you cannot trust scientific advice from EU agencies and institutions that base a good part of their data on research provided by industry. IARC, in a bizarre agency pissing contest, repeatedly stressed their hazard assessment of glyphosate made EFSA’s risk assessment pale in comparison because EFSA used unpublished, proprietary (hint: industry) data. These activists worked very hard, and spent a lot of money, trying to show that EFSA’s data was flawed, that industry was dishonest and that the system needed to be reformed. They achieved their goal – to undermine trust in the European risk assessment process.
But with what would these activists then want to replace this industry-generated GLP evidence and data gathering process?
First, groups like Corporate Europe Observatory and Friends of the Earth propose that we publicly fund all research and data gathering to support our decision-making process. That would of course be a burden on the public purse. So then the companies should pay? OK, which companies? We should add that if industry are paying for the testing, they should have a right to be involved, like REACH, in pooling costs and in the decision over which labs or scientists are conducting the research. We are back to where we started in this trust vacuum.
The next logical argument would be that policy would be decided according to evidence provided via the “research blockchain”. But determining the likelihood of a substance causing cancer or leading to hazardous side-effects is not as simple as “Rate-my-professor” or a booking.com review. Sadly, I am seeing more policy-makers dabble then dance with the idea of citizen science, post-normal science or a participatory approach to regulatory policy on science and health issues.
This begs the following question:
Can you extend blockchain trust to regulatory policy via a wide use of citizen-science-generated data as an alternative to the regulatory risk assessment process?
That will be the question of my next blog later this week (after the Risk-Monger figures it out by crowd-sourcing his tribe!).
The Risk-Monger will be presenting his views on blockchain trust at the American chapter of the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference in Arlington, Virginia this Wednesday (13 December 2017), final session of the afternoon. I would love to meet you there.